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Prisoner-swap talks in crucial phase

Marathon meeting to free Israeli soldier ends, but efforts are said to continue.

JERUSALEM - Marathon top-level Israeli meetings ended early today without announcement of a decision over whether to accept Islamic militants' demand to swap 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for a lone Israeli serviceman.

A decision to pay that lopsided price for Sgt. Gilad Schalit, 23, could reshuffle Mideast politics in unpredictable ways and possibly ease a punishing blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu and six cabinet ministers convened after nightfall yesterday, the latest in a series of sessions in the last two days in a frenzy of activity that suggested a deal could be close. The group was divided, however, with some ministers opposed freeing Palestinians convicted in fatal attacks.

After more than four hours of talks, Netanyahu's office released a statement today saying only that instructions were given to the negotiating team about "the continuation of efforts" to bring Schalit home safely. There was no word of a decision or further meetings.

As last night's meeting began, Netanyahu's office issued a statement saying: "The prime minister will continue to protect Israel's security and the lives of its citizens as the most important factor" in a decision over the soldier, a possible hint that he was leaning against approval of the deal.

A Palestinian close to the negotiations said a German mediator carrying a proposal approved by Hamas has set a deadline for tomorrow for Israeli action. The Palestinian, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said there would be no further talks.

In between yesterday's meetings, Netanyahu spoke with Schalit's parents, who have waged a high-profile crusade to free their son. The young tank crewman was dragged bleeding into Gaza by Hamas-linked militants who tunneled into Israel in a daring June 2006 raid, killing two other soldiers.

Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized control of Gaza a year after Schalit's capture, stands to be the biggest winner if the deal goes through. It could claim credit for the largest prisoner release in years - an achievement of paramount importance in Palestinian society, where nearly every family has had relatives in Israeli jails. A swap could also bolster the Hamas contention that only violence, not peacemaking, brings concessions.

Hamas also hopes a prisoner exchange would ease a crippling Israeli and Egyptian blockade of impoverished Gaza. That embargo has prevented the territory from rebuilding after Israel's devastating offensive a year ago to stop daily Palestinian rocket attacks.

Israel imposed restrictions on access to Gaza after Schalit was captured, then virtually sealed off the territory, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, after Hamas violently seized power the following year.

The big loser could be Hamas' rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The 74-year-old moderate leader, who governs only in the West Bank, has had little to show for years of peace efforts and could appear weaker than ever if Hamas wins the freedom of hundreds of Palestinians.

Abbas could be in even bigger trouble if Israel releases Marwan Barghouti, a popular grassroots leader and Abbas' key challenger inside the Western-backed Fatah movement. It is not clear if Barghouti is on the list of those to be freed, but he is considered a strong contender to become the Palestinians' next president. Barghouti is serving multiple life sentences after being convicted in fatal attacks against Israelis.

Prisoner swaps are controversial in Israel because of their potential to encourage militants to take more hostages. But the plight of Shalit and his family has touched many hearts in Israel, where military service is compulsory.

Bringing Schalit home could boost Netanyahu domestically. But it could also hurt the prime minister's standing among Israelis who feel releasing prisoners convicted of violence would only invite more bloodshed.

Hamas spokesmen had no comment yesterday. But on Sunday, Izzat Rashaq, a top member of Hamas, said the group was sticking to its demand that senior Palestinian militants be freed.